Back in May 2020, we interviewed Brian Keyser, the owner of Casellula Cheese and Wine Café, about his challenges to keep his business open during the pandemic. “My restaurant is my baby — my family — and now I’m thinking of closing it for good” was the story we ran. As Casellula prepares to finally reopen, we caught up at the end of last week for an update.
You just re-read the article from May — what was your first reaction?
We were so naive in May of 2020. The shutdown had been going on for about two months when we last spoke, and I think we both thought that had been a long time. And here we are 18, 19 months later and we’re still closed, but we’re finally scheduled to reopen on Tuesday, September 14.
What did you do in-between times?
So I spent the first seven months, until mid-October, doing Zoom calls weekly with ROAR (Relief Opportunities for All Restaurants), New York City Hospitality Alliance, New York State Restaurant Association, One Fair Wage, Victory Cheese and the American Cheese Education Foundation. All groups trying to save their industries — the restaurant industry, the cheese industry, cheese retailers, especially cheesemakers and farmers. They were in a dire situation. I didn’t do a lot, but I was on the calls with everybody, wanting to do a lot. And we did what we could, and by the end of summer that had slowed down. There were no longer weekly calls, it was more monthly calls and there was less I could do here.
We got the first round of Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) money and so that allowed us to pay rent through the end of the year, which I did in advance and told my landlord in late September. That was all the money I had and we weren’t going to be able to pay rent starting in January. And he could either tell me I had to get out and we would have closed the restaurant for good and got rid of everything and cleared out the space. Or, I said, let me not pay rent until I can pay rent again, and if in the meantime, you rent out the space to somebody else, then I’ll clear out. And if not, when we start having income, I’ll start paying rent again, and he said fine. So I was very lucky to have a great landlord, Josh Grossman at Friedman Management should get props.
So then my lease on my apartment ended in October, and I couldn’t justify continuing to pay New York rent when I wasn’t making New York money. So I put everything in storage, left my apartment and moved in with my sister in Frisco, Texas to wait out the pandemic. And while I was there, started seriously thinking about what I was going to do if the restaurant couldn’t reopen, which it still at that time seemed a likely possibility, that we would not reopen. So I applied to graduate schools in public health. I sat down and I thought, “What else can I do to make a living? Well, what do I enjoy doing that I do on my own time that I don’t get paid for, but I could get paid for?” Well, I read the newspaper and I get angry. That’s what I do with my free time.
So I thought, “How can I convert that into a career?” And one of the things that gets me really upset is the sorry state of the American healthcare system. That was exacerbated because I was trying to get health insurance in Texas and saw head-on how awful that experience can be in a red state versus a blue state. Health insurance is a nightmare in New York, but nothing like it is in Texas. So I was really upset by that, and I’m really upset by how the system fails the poor and how even people with health insurance get screwed with surprise bills and huge deductibles. So I said, “Man, maybe I can do something about that.” So I applied to four schools in January and then didn’t really think about it. It was a long shot, I haven’t been in school in 35 years. I was not a good student when I was in school. I applied only to very good schools, just a long shot, just a lark. Then we got round two of PPP, so I started paying rent again in May.
And the stimulus bill passed in March, which included $28 billion in Restaurant Revitalization Fund (RRF) money, so things started looking up. We had the PPP money, I expected we would get restaurant revitalization fund money. So I came back to New York, rented a new apartment and started taking steps to get the restaurant open again. Then I heard no from three of the four schools I applied to, and thought, “Well, the fourth is going to not accept me also, fine. I’m going to reopen the restaurant.” Then the restaurant revitalization fund was oversubscribed in the first 48 hours it was open. $28 billion for restaurants, $29 billion in applications in 48 hours, almost 90 billion in the first 10 days.
So then I started thinking, “Oh crap, maybe we’re not going to get that money.” Even though my application was in, in the first 15 minutes it was open. Hundreds of thousands of other restaurants probably did the same thing I did. So I started trying to figure out how we could open with just the PPP money we had, which is very limited in what we can use it for, the RRF money, any legitimate business expenses, so that was great. So then we started planning on opening in July, but I didn’t have enough money to build the dining structure in the street.
So we weren’t sure what the point of opening was if we couldn’t eat in the street. And so I pushed back the opening — July and August are our slowest months anyway, in the best of times. So I decided there wasn’t a real urgency to open in July and August. And then I was interviewed on the show Marketplace on NPR, and this must’ve been late June. And I complained on the show that Chuck Schumer had promised us, restaurant owners, in two meetings I was in, one with the restaurant association, I believe, and one with ROAR where he looked us in the Zoom eyes and said, “Don’t worry, we know there’s not enough money in the fund, but we’re going to add more money as necessary.” And then as soon as the fund opened, he became silent on the issue and he is still to this day, silent on the issue.
He hasn’t introduced a bill. The house has introduced a bill to add $60 billion to the fund, but he hasn’t. And so I complained vocally about Chuck Schumer and Congress not acting while restaurants like me were saying, “We can open if we get the money and we can’t open if we don’t get the money and it’ll be really sad if we close permanently.” And then two months later, the money shows up and it’s too late for us. That aired and the next day we got approved for the RRF fund. Is that a coincidence? Did somebody in somebody’s office hear the interview and say, “Let’s shut that guy up,” I don’t know, but either way we got the money. And so now we have enough to open, we have enough to build the outdoor facility, which I think is beautiful. We’ve made some repairs around the restaurant that have really needed to be done for a long time.
And so, because I have a good landlord and we got stimulus money from the government three different times, PPP one, PPP two, and RRF, that’s allowed us to stay open, pay our employees for at least some of the time we were closed. And get open knowing that if it takes a while for business to become profitable, we still have some money in the bank, we have a cushion, so we’ll survive. So it’s been a rollercoaster up and down that, “We’re going to open. We’re not going to open. We’re going to open. We’re not going to open,” but now we’re good at least for a while.
And what happened with school?
And then I got accepted at Georgetown. So I started a master’s program in health in the public interest in August. I did the summer program virtually and I’m taking one seminar course virtually this fall. And then hoping to be able to go full time, starting in the spring. Now, I don’t know if I’m going to be able to make that work with the restaurant open. But if things go well and I have management in place and the place is running and I don’t have to be here all the time, I’ll be able to do that. And if business is slow and we can’t afford a manager and I have to be here to do it, then I’ll have to put off school. But I’ve gone from having no hope for the future to now having too many options.
You called it right last year. You said that you couldn’t open until there was a vaccination.
Yeah. I think people were saying we could have a vaccine in as little as a year, but that would be many years faster than any vaccine in the past. So it didn’t seem a year was really the reasonable thing to aim for.
So that was a blessing. It would be a blessing if more people would take the vaccine. And it’s weird, having spent my whole life in fairly liberal places, California, Massachusetts and New York, to then go spend six months in Texas, where they did not have the same attitude toward masks and social distancing and closing businesses as we do here in New York. It was almost like nothing was happening, it was… All the restaurants were open, people would wear the mask from the sidewalk outside, they’d walk through the front door, they’d get seated at a table, they’d take off their mask. That was it, they’d have their mask on for 30 seconds. And people were gathering in bars and bands were playing and people were dancing, it was like it wasn’t happening. Having just left New York where people would leave their apartments only to go to the grocery store, fully masked, standing six feet apart from everybody, it was a real change.
You made some changes?
We decided to give the place a facelift, but not really change anything. So it’s a new paint job and we fixed the broken foot rail on the bar and put a new fan in the restroom. And most of the things that we did, the public isn’t going to notice other than it’s cleaned up.
I’m glad to see the cheese case is still in the same place. Where did it come from?
It’s an antique display case that I found in an antique store in the West Village in 2006 when we were building the place. And I said, “That’s what I want to display the cheese in. I want to make it the centerpiece of the restaurant,” and it happened to fit perfectly.
And did you lose any of your cheese suppliers during the time?
There are some cheesemakers who didn’t survive, but the final number is fewer than I was worried that it might be. And I don’t think any of the cheesemakers that we regularly buy from have gone out of business. Our producers are worldwide, but cheese basically means Europe, North America, a little bit of Australia.
We started ordering cheeses yesterday for opening and found out that the warehouse of World’s Best Cheese, which is a big distributor, got flooded in the Ida storm. I don’t think they lost any cheese, but they are in chaos and they’re not sending trucks out right now. It’s not catastrophic, we can get the cheese that we need to open. It’s hard, everybody’s overwhelmed, everybody’s short-staffed.
How have you managed to find or retain staff — as your staff traditionally are split between Broadway careers and working here?
Yes. Luckily Liv [Rooth — their fromager] is not going back to To Kill a Mockingbird. She’s coming back to Casellula. I am always happy for her when she gets a show — and broken-hearted. Anthony did a summer thing up in Woodstock and he’s back now. So the timing has really worked out well. If we tried to open in July, we wouldn’t have been able to get most of our staff back, because they had other things going on. But all but two of our staff are back now, and so we’ve hired two new people and we’re going to hire two more people for the kitchen. We’re in good shape.
And your wonderful outdoor area, we hear it was somebody else’s home for a little while?
Yeah. People thought I put it on Airbnb. The structure was built, but the security gates hadn’t arrived yet. And I left one evening at about eight o’clock and it was clean and empty, and I came back the next morning at about nine, and somebody had moved in. Not just to spend the night there, but had moved in furniture, artwork, tchotchkes, lamps, a TV on a TV stand, a reclining chair, five rugs. He had fully moved in. And the neighbors of course were all upset, telling me I had to get rid of him.
And so I introduced myself and very nicely said, “I’m sorry you’re going through what you’re going through, but you can’t keep this stuff here. You got to be gone by the end of the day.” And he said, “Okay, I’ll be gone by the end of the day.” And then he wasn’t, he was gone but all his stuff was still here when I left that night. I came back the next morning, he was sitting in his recliner with his feet up on an ottoman, smoking a cigarette. He had redecorated, the place looked much nicer. He had a little bedroom area and a little living room area and a sort of bonus room. A picture of Tyne Daly hanging on the wall, so I guess he was a theater fan.
He had plugged in the lamps — so they were working. He had not plugged in the television, but he was sitting in front of the television as if it were on. And I said, “You told me you were going to be gone.” And he gave me some story about a friend who got a hotel room and him having to go stay there, and I said, “I don’t understand why that means we couldn’t have cleared your stuff out.” And he said he’d be out by the end of that day. And again, he was gone but his stuff was all still here when I left that night.
And then I never saw him again. And other people just started going through all his stuff and taking anything that was of any value.
What happened to the Tyne Daly picture?
Tyne Daly was not a hot property. The Tyne Daly poster was one of the last things to go. I was thinking that I might get to keep it myself for a while, but eventually somebody took that. Leaving five rugs that were soaking wet because it had rained, some really bad clothes and bags of garbage. He had moved in bags of garbage, household garbage. I can’t, in my wildest imagination, understand what that was all about.
So we installed the security gates and then I paid Junkluggers 700 bucks to take away all the rest of the stuff. I mean, I feel for him. Obviously he’s in a bad situation. It seems he might be having some mental health issues and didn’t have the resources he needed, and by the time homeless outreach, who I called, got here, it was days later and he was long gone. So I was sad, I was angry because it was a pain in my butt and it pissed off my neighbors, and I was in class online full-time every day during this time. So I was sitting in the restaurant in class, looking out there at my tenant, and I was also entertained by the whole thing, it was funny.
It was a New York moment?
It was sad and it was funny. And it cost me some money, but at the end of the day, it was not the biggest deal in the world. But it was a New York moment. It was strange.
So you’ve got extra seating. How many more covers will you have?
We’ve got about 30 seats outside — and we have 39 seats inside. So it’s not quite doubling it, but it’s a lot of extra seats. We’re going to do fewer tables inside, so there’s some social distancing. We now have far more seats than we can take care of. We don’t have a full kitchen here, we have a panini press and a convection oven. One person puts out the food for everybody at night and there’s not room for another person. So we can’t fill the place up. So having the outdoor space gives us options.
If the Delta variant or a new variant becomes worse and limitations on indoor dining are put in place again, we have outdoors, so that’s great. But it doesn’t mean we just are suddenly going to be doing twice the business.
We might be able to do a little bit more business, but in the old days at 39 seats on a busy Friday and Saturday, we could barely keep up. Making the cheese plates and sending out all the food in our tiny, tiny little space was really, really hard.
What’s been the response from your regulars and people in Hell’s Kitchen to the news that you’re coming back?
The regulars are excited that we’re finally coming back. People stop by, put their head in when they’re walking by, ask when we’re opening and post stuff online asking and send me messages. So I’ve been responding to that for eight months. People are really excited that we’re here.
You said when we last spoke that you would go across in an evening to TKTS at 7:45 to get a ticket. Do you see that in your future yet?
Not in my immediate future. I’ve been a little busy — but there are shows I’d love to see soon. Pass Over is supposed to be great, and it’s just along W52nd Street. If I can find the time, I would love to see that. I hear SIX is fun and that’s coming back — but that’s not really where my head has been.
I’ve been learning to be a student again after a long time away and trying to get the place open.
You were one of the lucky ones that got RRF funding — how do you feel for the two-thirds of the neighborhood places that were not so fortunate?
I’m upset that Chuck Schumer told us he was going to take care of us and then hasn’t. I’m still writing letters, asking elected officials to do the right thing and put more money in the fund, like they said they would. I’m just as upset about that as I was before I got the money, because so many people didn’t get money. I am sure there are restaurants out there that have closed permanently because they didn’t get that money. And it’s going to be heartbreaking when a second tranche of money rolls out in December or whenever, and it’ll be too late for a lot of people.
Are Marvin and Barbara still around? [Marvin Adler and Barbara Soo Hoo came to Casellula on their first night — and on the night they closed for COVID back in March. They describe it as their Cheers bar.]
They are. They’re going to be here on Tuesday for opening night.
We’re going to be doing all the COVID-related checks. We’re going to have printed menus and QR code menus so people can choose what’s best for them. And we’re also going to start taking a limited number of reservations, mostly for pre-theater, starting later in September. We’ve never taken reservations before.
I’m just excited that we’re reopening. I’m excited that most of our staff is back — because the staff is what makes the place such a neighborhood draw.
Casellula Cheese & Wine Café is at 401 W52nd Street — just west of 9th Avenue. casellula.com